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As listeria death toll hits 29, question becomes: When will it end?

November 03, 2011|By Amy Hubbard+, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Twenty-nine deaths are now linked to a listeria outbreak from contaminated cantaloupes.
Twenty-nine deaths are now linked to a listeria outbreak from contaminated… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

Deaths linked to listeria-contaminated cantaloupes have reached 29, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a total of 139 people sickened in 28 states. So when will the illnesses and deaths connected to this outbreak finally end?

The good news: "It appears to be tapering," says CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell.  Still, she said, there's "no way to project when an outbreak is going to be over."

There's little likelihood, Russell noted, that cantaloupes to which the outbreak was traced are still in anyone's refrigerator, given the shelf life of melons. But "you have to understand," she said, "there is a time lag between when someone actually becomes ill and when it actually is reported,"  as well as an incubation period of up to two months for the illness. 

As of 6 a.m. Tuesday, 139 people had become ill with strains of Listeria monocytogenes associated with the outbreak, according to the CDC.  That's just six more than the 133 reported on Oct. 24.  The number of reported illnesses (based on dates of clinical specimen collection) peaked in mid-September, according to a CDC timeline, about the same time that the voluntary recall of the cantaloupes was issued Sept. 14.

"The number of cases obviously has declined," Russell said. 

So the end could be near for what appears to be the second-most-deadly outbreak of foodborne illness since the CDC began tracking outbreaks in the 1970s. The worst was a California outbreak in 1985 in which as many as 84 people died after eating Mexican-style fresh cheese tainted by listeria.

Since identification of the outbreak at the beginning of September, it spread from Colorado -- where the source of the outbreak was linked to Jensen Farms' cantaloupes -- to multiple other states, one woman's miscarriage was blamed on the outbreak, relatives of victims have filed lawsuits, and a House of Representatives committee started its own investigation.

For more health news, check out other items on the  Booster Shots blog.

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